This month, Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited war epic “Dunkirk” hit screens worldwide. Critics have praised it as Nolan’s best film yet: a “powerful, superbly crafted film” and “a visceral, suspenseful, at times jaw-dropping historical war movie.” With a formidable British cast, a massive budget, the largest marine unit in movie history (60+ boats), and authentic filming actually occurring in the English Channel, “Dunkirk” will invariably be added to the list of war epics including Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, the Great Escape and Das Boot.
My thoughts just moments after watching the film? You get a real sense of urgency. The unwavering and intense anticipation was steadily increased throughout every scene by a soft, but perpetual tick-tock in the background. Every action sequence becomes a catharsis from the tick-tock only to return again, bringing with it this heavy feeling of apprehension that Britain’s brief, hopeful window to escape from Dunkirk is coming to an end. Time is truly ‘of the essence’ in this film.
Nolan’s Dunkirk is perhaps better appreciated by clarifying what it is not. This is not a comedy (as in, there’s not a single joke made to lighten the mood, even briefly). This is not a commentary about the highest-level political decisions of the period (there is no scene that shows Churchill furrowing his brow or naval/army/air force commanders bickering in Westminster). This is not a romance film (in fact, other than a few nurses, there was no female cast, nor insinuation to homosexual love). This is not a transnational film that attempts to bond enemies (there is no scene that shows German soldiers, except a rare glimpse at a Messerschmitt 109E and a few bombers, but even that is from a distance). This is not a documentary (despite a small amount of text after the opening credits, this film does not provide historical facts, nor interviews with survivors).
So what is it?
Perhaps this is best answered by you, the audience. For me, it was a story of survival. Well, a story of British survival. I really enjoyed it. I cringed, I cried, I squirmed, I begged, and I felt the greatest sense of hope when I saw the RAF Spitfires doing their intricate dances in the sky. (Which, coincidentally, is an excellent foreshadow to what would follow the Dunkirk evacuations – the Battle of Britain).
Walking out of the theatre on a Tuesday afternoon in July in Scotland, I followed a mother with her teenage sons. They were enthralled by the movie, but bursting with questions: “Did Grandddad fight in that? How come there weren’t more fighter planes to help the lads on the beaches? I’d shoot every German plane. The RAF were pretty incredible, can you imagine landing a plane like that on the water? Too bad they ran out of fuel. God, I’d be proper scared landing like that.”
Nolan’s film provides a fresh starting point for discussing the war, and Dunkirk particularly. Films are some of our greatest resources to access history. Of course, they must be taken with a grain of salt. According to a study by Dr. Peter Seixas, Professor of Education at the University of British Columbia, the more engaging the film, the less likely audiences were to criticize its historical merit.
Instead, filmic devices, such as realistic violence and use of blood, boosted the perceived authenticity of the historical event. Older films depicting the same event, despite being limited by 1950s or 1960s censorship, were seen as less historically genuine. Interesting, no?
But if Dr. Seixas’ observation is true – that the more engaging the film, the less likely audiences are to question its historical accuracy – then Nolan is stuck between a rock and hard place. Is it possible for Nolan (or any director) to create a film that is both highly entertaining and historically accurate?
No. Let’s get real. It’s impossible to exactly mirror history into any medium, film included. But, we can give credit to Nolan for attempting to gain authenticity in other ways. Nolan wanted to make his Dunkirk epic as British as he could, despite the need for American-sized film budgets to achieve his vision. After all, Dunkirk was a British failure. And depending on your perspective, a British success. Nolan chose only British actors and emphasized the Britishness of this endeavor. Ironically, the film is expected to be more lucrative with American audiences than British. But, whereas the British are educated about the failure of Dunkirk from a young age, many Americans will be introduced to Dunkirk for the very first time through this blockbuster film.
But, importantly, Nolan’s Dunkirk is also contributing to Dunkirk’s ongoing cultural legacy.
The “Dunkirk Myth” might be defined as a Britain’s ability to embrace defeat as a platform for eventual victory; the humanity and compassion of the British people to help one other created the perception of a strong community and an enduring nation. It was the marriage of the home front with the battle front, the defeat with the victory. Since 1940, the Dunkirk Myth has been influenced by various novels, speeches, poetry, and, importantly, films.
This is why is it so very important not to lose sight of the historical facts within this national myth – now reintroduced to new generations through a super visceral, action-packed CGI-enhanced, American-budget British war movie, right?
So what was Dunkirk?
Simply put, it was evacuation of 338,000 Allied soldiers (chiefly from the British Expeditionary Force and French Army) from the beaches of Dunkirk, France from 26 May to 4 June 1940.
A few weeks earlier, Germany had launched a surprise Blitzkrieg (lightening war) on the Allied forces in western Europe. This same German maneuver had epically failed in the First World War (resulting in stagnant trench warfare). But in May 1940, Germany was incredibly successful due to the element of surprise, wireless communications, anti-aircraft guns (called flak), the tight coordination of land and air forces, and stronger tanks.
Over 66,000 British soldiers died from mid-May until the end of the evacuations on 4 June. A combined total of 360,000 British, French, Belgian and other Allied forces died during the Battle of France, which ended with its surrender on 22 June 1940.
(For more further reading, seen Richard J Evans’ (2009) Third Reich at War, Julian Jacksons’s (2003) The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940, Ian Kershaw’s (2008) Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World 1940–1941 or Ronald Atkin’s (1990) Pillar of Fire: Dunkirk 1940).
Fleeing the German advance, nearly 400,000 Allied soldiers were pushed as far west as possible, until they reached the English Channel at the beaches of Dunkirk. Churchill called it the greatest military disaster in British history. This was also the last time any Allied Forces would be in France, Belgium, the Netherlands or Luxembourg until the famous D-Day landings nearly four years later. This evacuation also meant that all of western Europe was left alone to suffer German occupation for four long years.
Why is this disaster considered a success?
Due to the mobilization of over 800 boats, ships, yachts and other private holiday vessels, 338,000 men who were standing helplessly on the beaches of Dunkirk (as many naval ships could not dock to collect them) were successfully evacuated within just 10 days. From a humanitarian perspective, this is obviously impressive.
But it also meant that commanders made impossible choices, such as leaving behind the sick and wounded, and destroying Allied vehicles, equipment and resources, lest they fall into enemy hands. It was truly a fight for survival against overwhelming enemy forces, low morale, and very few resources. It was also a fight against time. Tick-tock, indeed.
What happened after Dunkirk? (And yes, there is a point for asking this)
Dunkirk ended the “Phoney War,” the 7-month lull on the Western Front following Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. This shocked the world and brought international attention to the fact that Germany was a formidable force. Hitler’s fiery promises to conquer Europe were not just hot air, but had legitimate merit.Immediately after Dunkirk, the war took to the skies in a fierce combat for air superiority called the “Battle of Britain.” Why? So that Hitler’s forces could invade Britain without constant aerial bombardment in the autumn of 1940 – before winter made it impossible to invade. German Luftwaffe planes initially attacked British air bases in southern England. Royal Air Force pilots (including Commonwealth and Polish pilots) were vicious competition for the vastly superior and better equipped Luftwaffe. Daily “dogfights” were witnessed by civilians. RAF planes and pilots dropped like flies. Churchill’s famous observation that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” reflected the fact that these tireless pilots had become the last line of defense.
By late August 1940, a small bomb was dropped on London (German command alleged it was an error). Error or not, this expanded the range of targets to now include civilian centers. The RAF then bombed Berlin. The Luftwaffe again bombed London. The “Blitz” of British cities shadowed the same quick, surprise tactics that the German Luftwaffe had recently used so successfully against infantry forces in western Europe. Night bombings and devastating daily air raids on homes, factories, ports, lasted until May 1941, killing an estimated 40,000 Brits and making hundreds of thousands homeless.
The Blitz, as it would be called, meant that British urbanites had to persist through the most difficult circumstances to continue surviving. Londoners especially “kept going” with daily tasks and came to epitomize the archetype of endurance. If ever there was a time in British history when the national character became so well tested, and so well defined, this was it. (For more reading on this very interesting topic, check out Angus Calder’s (1969) The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945 and (1991) The Myth of the Blitz and Jeremy Crang and Paul Addison’s (2011) Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain’s Finest Hour, May-September 1940).
What about the Dunkirk Myth?
Although “The Dunkirk Myth” preceded the Blitz, it also developed alongside the Blitz spirit through various culturally-important products (for those who want the pure academic stuff, see Nicolas Harman’s 1980 Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth or an excellent review by my old supervisor, Prof. Paul Addison):
Broadcasts from JB Priestly in May 1940 reporting on the flotilla of “little ships” in the English Channel. Priestly’s depictions of ordinary Englishmen coming to the rescue of the helpless troops transformed this war from a military affair to one which required the entire mobilization of the home front. (But, to be historically accurate on this point, Englishmen weren’t voluntarily throwing themselves into the fray, but the British navy normally took charge of their vessels then used them as required to save the troops).
Churchill’s famous “We shall fight them on the Beaches” speech to the House of Commons. Everyone has heard this speech. It’s epic. But most everyone does not know that the speech was not broadcast. British newspapers printed excerpts of it, but it was not until 1949 when it was recorded.
Paul Gallaco’s Snow Goose, a short story (and eventually a novella) first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1940. This tearjerker reveals a growing friendship between a disabled artist and lighthouse keeper and young woman, who discovers a wounded Snow Goose. Loads of symbolism paints the picture of innocence and loyal love dismantled by the tragedies of war. And the evacuations of Dunkirk become a sort of self-sacrifice for humanity, art, and first loves. The Snow Goose novella had a strong impact on British society. It was a favourite for young readers due to its short but eloquent length and even Michael Morpurgo cites it as an influence on his much-loved War Horse. People saw Dunkirk not for what is was in strict military terms – a colossal disaster – but a sort of coming of age story about the enduring spirit of British compassion and humanity.
Dunkirk (1958). Starring Richard Attenborough, John Mills and Bernard Lee, it became the second largest grossing film in Britain of that year. By following an English civilian and a British soldier, the film unfolds from two key perspectives, again cementing the myth that Dunkirk united the home and battle front in one great national rescue mission.
Ian McEwan’s Atonement (novel) and Atonement (2007) film. Atonement follows the blossoming love of a young couple interrupted by the shocking and criminal accusations of a younger sister. Soon enough, the war unfolds and both sisters become nurses in London while the protagonist is sent to France to fight. Dunkirk (again) is used as a historical event that binds together the home front and battle front, becoming both a barrier and vehicle for unity. Director Jo Wright’s incredible scene of the Dunkirk beaches is praised as “one of the most extraordinary shots in the history of British film – a merciless ten minutes, panning across an army of bedraggled and bleeding British troops huddled on the beach at Dunkirk, with ruined ships smouldering in the shallows beyond.”
Finally, Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017). An epic war film that refuses to be classified in all the genres we normally assign. I suspect it will haunt and challenge both critics and audiences for many years to come. But perhaps we should also be wary of a film that is so very one-sided? So singular in its storytelling?
Historically, Dunkirk was the rude awakening that not only shocked the British Expeditionary Force, but also the British home front. As Churchill said solemnly “Wars are not won by evacuation.” People began to fear for their sovereignty, their homes and their country in a way that they had never before. How they reacted was a real testament to their national character, and how they survived was a real testament to their national legacy.
Culturally, Dunkirk planted the seeds of a national myth that developed, grew and transformed as the war unfolded. Initially it was highly propagandistic with Priestly’s broadcasts or Snow Goose love stories, but as time has passed, Dunkirk’s legacy appears to still enthral the imaginations of a new generation. It was a paradox that such a defeat could be transformed into a stunning success. Now, 77 years later, we are still discussing Dunkirk’s historical relevance and cultural impact on British national identity in the face of overwhelming odds and great uncertainty.
Which begs the question – the same question others have already asked: What about Brexit?